(Mis-)Reading Context

By | Wednesday, August 05, 2020 Leave a Comment
John Tenniel cartoon
Take a look at this editorial cartoon by John Tenniel from 1871. Because it's not a very hi-res image, I'll inform you that the two swords read "Radicalism" and "Toryism". Now, what is it about?

Well, it will only make sense if you know several things. First, you need to know what radicalism and toryism are. I suspect most folks could guess at radicalism, and assume toryism would be the opposite of that, but that still might be a stretch. Next, you'd need to know what that the subject of the cartoon is performing a Scottish sword dance and, more significantly, you'd need to have seen such an act performed to really understand what's involved in it. Third, you'd need to know that the illustration is of William Gladstone and that, fourth, he was Prime Minister of England at the time the cartoon was drawn. And even then, it would still help to know what platforms he stood upon and what speechs he had given in the latter half of that year.

The cartoon, by itself, for most people simply doesn't make much sense today. It's a just a Scottish guy stepping over a couple of swords. Even after several setences of explanation (see above), it's still doesn't carry much context, despite the incredible execution of the final product and the probably-super-poignent topicalness that it would've had in 1871. But the base of reference is too far removed at this point, and the cartoon doesn't make much sense, let alone seem funny.

Six Chix comic
I bring this up in light of the Six Chix comic I posted about last week. I ended that post by saying, "If you don't get it? If you misread it as being against mask-wearing during a pandemic? Odds are that you're deliberately not getting it. And you can fuck off because you're part of the problem!"

I had a related discussion on Twitter where someone was saying that if you assumed the cartoon was by an anti-mask wearing, right-wing cartoonist, he could see how someone might mistake the intent. My argument, though, is that you're still deliberately mis-reading the cartoon if you take that approach. The science behind mask-wearing is over-whelming. For a character to be so flippant about it, the reader can only take this one of three ways:
  1. You can read the cartoon as intended
  2. Cynically, you can read the cartoon as intended, but actively choose the wrong interpretation for the sake of trashing the cartoonist
  3. You can be willfully dimissive of the science; the extension of which is that you will be willfully dismissive of the cartoon
In the Tenniel cartoon above, you don't have much, if any, context because we're well over a century away from when that happened. But Bianca Xunise's cartoon is current; it's about what is going on right now. Today. That is context that you are unable to get away from. The only way to not understand the context is to be willful about it. Whether that's by only getting your news from Fox, or believing anything Trump says, or whatever, you can't not be deliberate and willful in your thinking about it. You can't feign ignorance here.

Context is every bit as imporant in a cartoon as the content itself. If you misread Xunise's cartoon, you're doing it deliberately. Either by willfully misunderstanding the context, or by willfully misunderstanding the content. And, once again, either way, you can fuck off because you're part of the problem!
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